I wasn’t sure that it would be my sort of book, but I heard so much praise that I really had to order a copy.
Since then it appeared on the shortlist, and now that I have read it I have to say that I would be thrilled to see it win. A wonderful book!
It tells the story of one woman, her life and marriage, and wraps around it the story of Trinidad in the second half of the twentieth century.
French born Sabine moved to Trinidad in 1956 with her English husband, George. He has a three year contract with a shipping company. It’s an adventure, and they are young, happy, and confident that they will suceed where, it seems, many before them have failed.
George fell in love with Trinidad. The surroundings, the climate, the lifestyle.
Monique Roffey’s rich and evocative prose makes it easy to see why. But she describes a darker and more violent side to Trinidad too.
Sabine hates Trinidad: the heat, the humidity, the rigid social code of the ex pat community, the racial segregation. She accepts that she wil have to stay until the end of her husband’s contract, but she sees her future in England.
But George sees his future in Trinidad, and has no intention of returning to England. He would happily spend his whole life in Trinidad. And so the relationship between Sabine and George, inevitably, deteriorates. They continue to love each other deeply, but they many never understand each other.
And so Sabine is tied: she could leave Trinidad, but she could never leave George.
Meanwhile, the country is changing. And one day Sabine is caught up in a rally for a new political party, a party demanding an end to colonial rule and better things for the native people, as she rides her green bicycle to the market.
She starts to take an interest in the local politics, she argues with the other ex pat wives, and bonds grow between her and her family’s native maids. She will never love the country but she grows to love its people and hope for their future. And she writes letters to the new party’s leader, sharing her hopes, her fears, her concerns, her ideas. She knows that she will never be able to send them and so she stores them away.
Her husband though is her mirror image. He continues to love the country, but he will never be more than an ex pat and he will never understand, never even want to understand its people.
And years later George will find Sabine’s letters…
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a powerful, complex, rich story of a woman, a marriage and a country. There are many details, many emotions, and each and every one rings true.
Many questions are posed. Some are answered, but others are too difficult.
The story is non chronological – the ending is seen first, through George’s eyes and then the past is revealed from Sabine’s point of view. And that works well, focusing attention on events and relationships as they unfold without the distraction of wondering where they are leading.
The language and the imagery are dark and dazzling, slowly but surely painting complex and vivid pictures of personal and political histories.
And the story is compelling.